Wednesday 27 January 2021

Australia Day 2021: Change inevitable

In a year that saw all of the Australian of the Year awards going to women there was more debate than I’ve ever seen surrounding unreconciled issues. Hashtags in support of change such as #invasionday and #jan26isinvasionday drew posts from citizens against the status quo. So such people had a place where their views could be heard – and amplified. 

Amplification is what hashtags are about, as they allow people with low follower counts to reach a larger audience. Twitter adopted this method of communication way back in the mists of time and it has since become, like the retweet, a permanent part of the service, one that all people can avail themselves of if they are savvy enough. Not everyone is going to be pleased, just as not everyone will use such tools in a way that respects others. Some people will overstep the mark and post comments that are aggressive, abusive, or even criminal. As we’ve seen from the way this company dealt with Donald Trump, however, there are ways to combat egregious abuse of the medium.

While for some the existence of debate, itself, is a source of outrage, the structural heft of such mechanisms – a shared platform with tools to connect people and to enforce proper conduct – is a reminder, like the degree of engagement, of how far we’ve come since the days, before social media, when we could only look on impotently while politicians and dignitaries officiated at remote ceremonies, prize-givings, and spectacular events that were brought to us through the mainstream media. Hundreds of boats mixing on the Harbour in 1988 seems like a century ago. Change comes despite the overhang of dark clouds that threaten peace, though in a sense we have replicated the spectacle in the absence of satisfactory analogues.

But clouds bring rain, and rain brings life. Just contemplating the list of award winners – all women – tells us that change is possible. If all of the recipients could be female – under a conservative government that many lambaste routinely as being out-of-touch – how more likely, then, that some change would be made to better accommodate the feelings of Indigenous people of this nation? Even as we discuss – not always politely, it has to be admitted – the pros and cons of whether or not to enshrine the most recent effort at reconciliation (the Voice to Parliament) in the Constitution, we are able to make Senior Australian of the Year a prize for Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, a First Nations storyteller and elder from up north.

How far have we come? Let’s think about these awards for a moment. As though we were reflecting upon the Anzacs lost in some forgotten battle – forgotten but for an annual commemoration – the events of 2021 must demonstrate how everyone agrees that working together is better than struggling independently. 

Covid has taught us this. We’ve been properly schooled. 

While the struggle of First Nations people is real, they should know that they are not alone. The majority of the community supports their quest – though will a constitutionally enshrined VtP help an Aboriginal man living on Palm Island not to start drinking at 10am? – but I wonder how we are to work together if our very identity is based on identification with a particular ethnic group? 

If we define who we are by visions seen in a dream for which there is no dawn – you cannot change your past – then we are walking on shifting sands. Many people on both sides are defining who they are by who they exclude – those different from themselves – and I feel that this approach to self-definition is misguided. Multiculturalism is a better model for setting the bounds of identity than racial pride because it embraces all, and is less strict about who is allowed to enter the longhouse, and who must be kept outside.

If Australian of the Year tells us anything, it must be that diversity is strength. Rather than identifying with one limited group of ethnic relevance or political stance, we should take a chance and seek to form part of a multiplicity of voices. As with a choir, many singing in harmony can deliver a stronger effect than mere battling soloists. Let us imagine a shared destiny so that we can say, with glad hearts, “I am, you are, we are Australia!” Our collective dream is one that includes the past as well as the present. 

Let’s invite the future in.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Podcast review: Revisionist History, season 1, Malcolm Gladwell (2016)

I was recommended to listen to this show by a Facebook friend. I don’t remember who that was, but I’m glad the tip came to me as I mostly enjoyed the first season. The title is a bit misleading as not much is historical (though some is): the purpose of the series seems to have been to allow Gladwell to get on his hobbyhorse and campaign for more equity, but this, as we’ll see, presents the listener with some problems.

One is that the theme of each episode isn’t strongly enough made, so you lose track of the central theme while listening to all the attendant details. And Gladwell is on firmer ground when he sticks to the USA. The first episode, ‘The Lady Vanishes’, is about a woman painter of the Victorian era, and Gladwell tries to make a modern comparison by roping in Julia Gillard (whose name he mispronounces), the ex-PM of Australia. The points he wants to make fall a bit flat as his sneering scorn is unleashed upon Tony Abbott and the conservative commentariat. The thesis being that even though a person belonging to a minority is welcomed into the establishment – for example Elizabeth Thompson or Gillard – that doesn’t mean the status quo changes. The door, he says, immediately slams shut and the establishment carries on as though nothing had happened. 

As for Australia, I’m not sure that this holds true. There’ve been two prominent state leaders – we call them “premiers” – who are women, for a start, but beyond that the generalisation Gladwell likes to make with respect to the Australian political settlement eliminates some key details. He says nothing about how Gillard came to office, for example. His narrative is focused on 2012, but he says nothing of the razor-thin margin Gillard had in Parliament as a result of two independents siding with her following the 2010 election. He says nothing of Tony Abbott’s being replaced – just as Gillard replaced Rudd, by back-room manoeuvring – so his suggestion that the establishment (as represented by the unappetising Abbott) won out was misplaced. Abbott was replaced by the very small-l Liberal Malcolm Turnbull, who favoured gay marriage (which, just to spite Gladwell, Gillard didn’t).

More alarming for me was the tone Gladwell uses as he tries to make his points. Though they’re accompanied by an impressive array of facts, listening to the series felt a bit like being caught next to a person, at a dinner party, whose obsession is allowed to occupy all the conversational space. I would’ve liked there to have been more editing, and more refinement of the mechanism of transferral of all that information, like in the very slick ‘The Dropout’ (by America’s ABC)

Gladwell is roughly on the right track, but when he on one occasion – already mentioned – looks outside the US he turns up the sneer to 11. The sneer is Gladwell’s main weapon, in the service of which his finely developed taste for arcana deploys, but like many North Americans he’s got up on the wall in his office, “Only if made here!” Sort of like Trump’s “Make America great again”, Gladwell’s exhortation to his listeners to stay on-shore is the flipside of the sneer: because people outside NA deign to occasionally criticise America and – worse – to do things better than Americans, he’s going to sneer at all foreigners unless they belong to a persecuted minority. You have to have suffered an acceptable degree of obloquy or neglect in order to qualify for canonisation in Gladwell’s universe, where the sneer sits, like a washer, snug up against the bolt used to secure the author’s enthusiasm. 

Normal, everyday good ideas like adequate federal funding for secondary school and university, or single-payer healthcare, are not enough to get you a ticket to the good seats. Such ideas have to sit at the back – in Limbo. 

While he’s busy blazing trails that lead nowhere, Gladwell also indulges in a bit of serendipitous coinage, such as when in episode five he substitutes for a perfectly good word – “equity” – another one that he needs to define so that other people will know what he’s talking about – “capitalisation” which means, in his world, the ability of the community to capitalise on the potential of all of its members. It’s almost as though, knowing that most people won’t share his enthusiasm for exotic fauna, he’s determined at the outset to scotch the possibility of success, so that he can blame other people when he fails. 

Where would Gladwell be with nothing to criticise?

Monday 25 January 2021

TV review: Death in Paradise, series 3 episode 3 (‘An Artistic Murder’), BBC (2014)

Lovely relaxing episode of one of my favourite shows! I adore most British murder mysteries and the light-hearted ‘Death in Paradise’ usually does the trick when I want to unwind. As I did yesterday following an afternoon spent listening to other people’s amplified music – I sympathised with Camille (Sara Martins, pictured below) when she had to put up with the bad driving of Humphrey (Kris Marshall) as I, too, felt a bit knocked around by the time evening quietly emerged and I could settle down in peace in my new home.

‘An Artistic Murder’ was, with its overly deterministic title, an episode where a lot of false leads result in a comforting degree of thinking outside the box. Humphrey as the local Saint Marie detective is especially adept at this, as when he takes some words spoken by Fidel (Gary Carr) – centred on the word “reflection” – and extrapolates from it to solve the crime. I’d seen this ep before but had only a faint inkling, before the final scene, of who the killer was. When everything became clear however the relevant thoughts came back to me. 

A bit problematic, from my point of view, is the fact that the painting at the heart of the drama is spectacularly bad. The fact that the murdered gigolo, Carlton Paris (Steven Cole), was using art to flatter and beguile his clients – all women, naturally – felt unpleasant in a patronising way, but I’m used to art being demeaned like this. Paris might’ve been prone to scrubbing up on his knowledge of antiques and oil paintings in order to seduce women into giving him money but he was also Fidel’s friend and the lover of Fidel’s old friend Lauren Campese (Vinette Robinson).

The theme of friendship abandoned snakes its way through this ep like the tune of an old song heard while walking at night in a hot city, the summer air caressing your arms as you move from doorway to corner, and from traffic light to kerb. Always on your tracks, dogged in pursuit, is the idea that regardless of what happens you’ll be, at the same time, true to your own nature and to the pact that you’ve made to be faithful to one whose wellbeing you value as much as your own. This is the risk and the burden of friendship, that it taxes us at the same time as it sustains.

Humphrey is aware of this dichotomy, just as, grasping a copy of an old island guidebook, he tricks Camille into thinking he’s an idiot when, in truth, he’s always just been awkward. At the end, when the two of them are sharing a companionable beer on the beach in front of Humphrey’s shack, she asks him about his internet dating. With a smile of forgiveness for his gauche attempt to resemble a normal person, Camille settles the score. 

And the sum of the show is as rare as sunshine, and as ubiquitous as the sea. The two elements forging a close bond in this ep, where a dreadful painting that features both not only forms the backdrop for a lonely American’s (Sharon Small) yearning for love, a judge’s search for authenticity as a woman, and a lover’s regrets – it also contains the clue. 

Humphrey dodges for cover like the show’s signature virtual green lizard when the commissioner (Don Warrington) comes down to the station to find out what’s happening with his enemy, the judge (Josette Simon), who gives the best performance of all when her eyes fill with water when being interviewed by the detectives. 

As usual, the filmmakers make a lot of mileage out of small points of characterisation and plotting. I was – again, as usual – impressed by the way the writers tied into the process of investigation so many secondary themes, such as love, desire, and solitude. It’s astonishing that a murder mystery can end up being so redolent with ancillary meaning as to almost resemble life itself. The crime is almost irrelevant, a hanger for clothes of astonishing beauty.

Sunday 24 January 2021

Bad news from Burundi

On Twitter on Saturday 2 November 2019 at 1.21pm Sydney time I saw a tweet from @iBurundi that went, “Burundi controversial ruler @pnkurunziza plans to create an exclusive law for only himself. He reportedly wants to have a special status that will transcend the government ‘when he leaves’ his current role in August 2020. He wants to become a monarch.” Until 1.55pm on that day the only tweets that had appeared with the #Burundi hashtag were one about soccer and one about a Burundi ambassador on an official visit although it was very early in the morning in Burundi. 

When I saw a tweet about Evangelique Inamahoro I asked a few direct questions. She had been shot outside her home by a man on a motorcycle – who shot her? why? Five minutes later I got a call from a man. We agreed to meet and I gave him a location that suited me. On 7 November I went there in the early evening and waited until a man wearing a purple shirt came up to me. He greeted me politely and I suggested going to my house but he didn’t want that so we went to a café and sat down. I ordered a flat white and he ordered a sparkling mineral water. The waitress also brought a bottle of tap water for us to drink, and two glasses with it.

He said that the government of Burundi – a nation of 10 million people – is abusing human rights. “They talk to God everyday but they behave like monsters,” he said. There would be elections held in 2020 and the president – a man named Pierre Nkurunziza – would try to run again for office even though he had already had the allowed two terms in office. He had been brought to power initially in 2005 and there had been elections in 2010, which he had won, and in 2015. Now, he had extended the presidential term to seven years and said that the first term he had served – after being elected by a limited franchise of people acting as an “electoral college” – did not count.

This part of the story matched what I had learned online. For example at about 2pm on Saturday 2 November a tweet appeared from a person named MissyMunezer (with 909 followers) who used the #Burundi hashtag and said, “Nkurunziza replacing the few who might resist his succession roadmap: Steve Ntakarutimana has been silenced & replaced by a loyal Ndakugarika. What will be Niyongabo army Chief of Staff[‘s] fate?” Her tweet, a retweet from a person named Albert Rudatsimburwa, contained an image of the same official letter that had appeared in the tweet already mentioned. The letter appears below. Rudatsimburwa has “Rwanda” as his place of residence in his Twitter profile. He has about 41,900 followers.

Apart from these two tweets, the hashtag had gone virtually silent for an hour, and it wasn’t clear, even then, that Twitter had not been shut down. MissyMunezer might have been using a clever means to bypass a block but I don’t know enough about the internet to accurately speculate as to why her tweet had gotten through when everyone else in the country, it seemed, had suddenly shut up. Perhaps she was accessing her account overseas?

I asked the man I met, and he said that he wasn’t sure if Twitter had been blocked by the government of Burundi but that people were telling him that YouTube had been blocked in the country.

The tweet about the dead woman went, “Évangélique Inamahoro, a mother of 3 children[,] was shot and killed at home in Kanyosha by two assaillants [sic] who took off on a motorcycle.” It had gone up on Friday 1 November at 12.15am Australian Eastern Daylight Time, which would have been on Thursday evening in Burundi.

The document shown in the above image is a letter from the presidency of the republic, the secretary-general of the government. It is titled, “Press release from the meeting of the council of ministers of Wednesday 30 October 2019.” The document says:
The council of ministers met this Wednesday 30 October 2019 under the leadership of his excellency the president of the republic, Mr Pierre Nkurunziza.
The following points were discussed:
  1. Legislative project carrying modification of the law No. 1/20 of 9 December 2004 in regard to the status of the head of the state at the termination of his functions, presented by the minister for justice, of civil protection and keeper of the seals.
The head of state is an important figure for the country. During the exercise of his functions and even at the termination of the same, he deserves to be treated with dignity. 
Therefore, the legitimacy of the head of state depends on the manner whereby he gained power. A president who acceded to power by a coup d’état or by the simple consensus of a group of politicians should not be treated the same as a president who has been democratically elected. 
The law in force relating to the status of the head of state at the end of his functions has not made a distinction with regard to that which concerns the treatment reserved for the old heads of state relating to the manner in which they have come to power. 
The current project wants to make such a distinction. It will also conform to the Constitution in foreseeing the benefit of replacing the privilege of automatically incorporating the Senate, which shall no longer figure in the Constitution.
After discussion, the project was adopted with a number of changes.
I tried contacting the shadowy black man again. In March 2020 we exchanged some words in WhatsApp and I tried again this year but with no success. The things he’d told me were still in my mind. Teachers who rape their students with impunity. People being imprisoned. Refugees fleeing across borders to safety in other countries. It all became relevant in January this year when Margaret Court had her honours upgraded – her husband Barry is Burundi’s consul in Perth – and while I’d had no luck getting the mainstream media interested in his story back in 2019, I thought it might fly now that Court was in the news. Hence this blogpost.

I asked @iBurundi about the 2020 election – Nkurunziza had died in 2020 and a new president was now leading the country – and the account sent me a link to a UN website that chronicles abuses at the election. “Elections happened but they weren’t free or fair,” the account operator told me via DM. The report’s summary contains this:
Numerous serious human rights violations have been documented since May 2019 in connection with the 2020 elections. The perpetrators were seeking to deprive the main opposition party of any chance of winning the election. These violations were mainly committed by members of the Imbonerakure youth league of the ruling party and by local officials who continue to enjoy nearly total impunity. Officers of the National Intelligence Service and the police often participated in or supported such violations or, in the case of the police, sometimes stood by and allowed the perpetrators to act. The judiciary has also taken part in this repression.
The “Imbonerakure” is a terrorist group. Anyone who wants a copy of the UN’s PDF with their report, please contact me and I will email it to you. Burundi’s problems continue and Barry Court continues to be associated with a dangerous regime.

Friday 22 January 2021

Socmed companies push back against Aussie government’s revenue sharing scheme

Last year the federal Liberal Party announced a scheme whereby social media companies would pay part of their advertising revenues to media companies. In September, Facebook threatened to pull Australian mainstream media content from its platform. Now, the same company has said that the proposed laws are unprecedented and for that reason should be scrapped before they are introduced. Google, for its part, has made moves to exclude Australian media content from its search results. Both companies have said that Australian media companies benefit from the readers their sites bring to the sites of outfits like the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, and the Australian.

Nip it in the bud, is the feeling that these tech giants are giving evidence of. Worried that news organisations in other countries might take the lead and push their own governments to try to redress the balance that has been lost since social media became a popular resort for billions of people.

What Facebook and Google have done is like China’s grab for a part of the South China Sea. By quarantining income away from general use, and from a beneficial purpose, the tech giants are saying that they like to benefit from the healthy news ecosystem – which enables liberal democracies to flourish, and enables the laws that give people the money to spend on advertisers’ products – but they don’t want to cultivate that ecosystem. 

They want to have their cake and eat it, too, in an essentially selfish ploy to smear a government that is – refreshingly – trying to do good. Almost despite itself, the Australian conservative administration has hit the nail upon the head. 

I’ve written before about monetising the news, for example in 2013 when I wrote a spoof that envisioned Google voluntarily surrendering part of its massive revenues to the news media. That didn’t happen, though I suggested in the same year that Google Wallet might help news media companies to monetise their products

Nothing came of that idea either but things change and people do unexpected things, as the Liberal Party has recently done Down Under. Surprising also – though, in a way, not – was the broader commentariat’s lack of enthusiasm for this issue as a source of outrage. There are many people who get incensed by one marginal idea or another who, in the present case, remain silent. Not totally unexpected, of course, due to that segment of the community being largely wedded to the idea that the mainstream media – which would benefit from the government’s scheme – is incompetent at least, if not criminally involved in a conspiracy.

Despite the rocky road travelled thus far let’s hope that sense prevails and that the stranglehold that the likes of Facebook and Google hold over advertising income is relaxed. If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it’s that we’re all in this together. If you want to enjoy freedom, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Podcast review: Let’s Talk About Sects, season 1, Sarah Steel (2017-18)

I got a tip from a Facebook friend to listen to this podcast – I don’t remember who it was, but to them I say: thank you for your comment! 

I’ve been informing myself – while driving Ensign – about cults. Using the word “sects” in the title is misleading as some of the groups the show focuses on were (or, in some cases, are) not religions at all, being more like New Agers. 

It’s a low-budget production not just put together – getting help from others, for example a person to write the theme music – but also narrated by Sarah Steel; her slightly congested, plummy voice and her ethical approach to the subject predominate. The show lags at times and you tend to just get one voice recounting the information. Monotony occasionally leads to your attention slipping, but the payoff in each episode is still strong. The work is evident. 

Religion, despite the naysayers, is still a very popular life choice and the show details a wide variety of ways people have found meaning outside work and hobbies. Despite the car-crashes that some of these cults turned into, you can sense a yearning among adherents to discover a better way of life. The aspirational clashes – sometimes wildly – with the farcical and the tragic to form an interesting melange of emotions and feelings while listening. 

In some of the episodes – for example the one on an Australian outfit named Kenja Communication – I found that similarities between a cult and an organisational rising before me like a bad dream. I almost felt triggered. Work is an under-examined arena of life (compared to, say, sport or art) but it’s an area of endeavour I have a deep interest in

Attempts to refashion society, often to the detriment of the individual, are commonplace though most people try to change their consciousness using alcohol or drugs. While religion is broadly considered, today, to be a matter of personal belief and the consensus usually locates it firmly within the domestic arena, for sects it becomes more than this. It becomes a way to order existence. This includes making your own rules to live by – which is where sects often come to grief.

It’s as though a commitment to the irrational were an ingrained part of who we are. I also tend to believe that we need a dominant person to at least symbolically sit at the apex of the communities we form as collectives of individuals. The Westminster system – where the symbolic head and the executive are separated by biology – seems to be the ideal way to organise societies. My father always used to call the USA an “experiment”, but I don’t think he’d the sects in mind when he did.

Politics, like religion, is universal – you cannot escape it. In the absence of a familiar structure defining relations between people something will emerge – and Steel’s use of detail to show how it operated in these small, closed societies oriented around dominant personalities, is entertaining in a kind of doomscrolling way. You just can’t look away often because there’s a crime at the core of the drama. As with work, it’s only when things go pear-shaped that a cult enters our collective consciousness, like the Family (in Australia) or the Branch Davidians (in the USA), so you wonder how many other cults have headed home under the radar, never reported on. 

I’ve only listened to a small fraction of the total offerings in this series – by the time the post you’re reading went public four seasons had been recorded and broadcast on the show’s website – but was impressed by Steel’s tenacity and grit. It must’ve taken something in her past that brought her to give such a quantity of time to studying cults. Though an elegant voice guides you through each episode you feel secure she’s done the needed research. 

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Australia’s Covid-19 response

Many people in many countries must be wondering how best to deal with a pandemic but models are available for example in Australia where to date there’ve been only about 900 deaths. New Zealand has also done well but I won’t comment on that case as I don’t know the details. 

Australia’s success has nothing to do with having a small population. Even though it’s a continent the same size as the continental USA and even though the population is only 25 million, Sydney and Melbourne are world cities. Sydney has a population of about 5.5 million and Melbourne is almost as large. So people living further apart is not the reason for the low death rate or for the Australian government’s success in containing the virus.

It’s about trust. Back in late March when the government shut down the borders no-one knew what this crisis would look like as there were no models to go by but contingent reality schooled the government, for example when the local stock market took a dive. In response, Scott Morrison, the prime minister, with his federal cabinet established schemes to funnel money into the economy. 

One was a supplement to the usual unemployment benefits, which was renamed JobSeeker. With the supplement, JobSeeker now delivered over A$1000 a fortnight to eligible adults, those who were not working and who were looking for work. This was approximately twice the usual allowance. The supplement was paid until the end of December. In addition, for companies whose revenues had declined sharply as a result of the virus, the government instituted JobKeeper, an allowance to be paid to employees. This payment is continuing to the end of March but it might go beyond that, things are still up in the air.

Alongside these measures designed to make it easy for people to stay at home, in Victoria, which had a second wave in July, a lockdown was instituted whereby residents had to stay inside except for gazetted purposes.

Buying groceries and supplies, work or education if it can't be done from home, medical care, or exercise (maximum two people) are permitted.

Exercise was also limited, but allowed. Leaving Melbourne for the purposes of exercise was forbidden. New South Wales shut its border to Victoria in response, a measure that would be repeated the other way around in December when a cluster of cases was found in Sydney’s northern beaches. Other states shut their borders too, but exceptions were sometimes made for people living close to the border. In Victoria at the time of the Sydney northern beaches outbreak, some areas of NSW were named “red”, “orange” and “green” zones.  

A red zone means if you have visited this area in the past 14 days you will not be allowed to enter Victoria without an exception or exemption. If you try to enter Victoria at a land border, you will be turned away.

Returned Victorian travellers arriving by plane or by water without a valid reason or exemption will be required to self-isolate at home for 14 days and will receive a fine of $4,957. Interstate residents presenting at an airport or seaport without a valid reason or exemption will be fined $4,957 and returned to their destination on the next available flight. If this requires an overnight stay, these individuals will need to stay in hotel quarantine until their departure.

An orange zone means that you will be able to apply for a permit and will need to take a coronavirus test within 72 hours after arriving in Victoria, isolating both before and after your test, until you receive a negative result.

A green zone means that you will be able to apply for a permit and enter Victoria. Once in Victoria, and as always, you should watch for symptoms and get tested should you feel unwell.

Because of the shared pain, people made fun of their own suffering. The lamb industry put out a Covid-themed ad for its annual Australia Day (January) marketing blitz that featured a wall between states. It had a reassuringly patriotic theme but, as usual for their ads, was light-hearted.

Testing for Covid in Australia was emphasised by authorities in all jurisdictions and daily press conferences were held by various premiers (a premier is the government head of a state; territories have a chief minister) to encourage people to queue – often for long periods of time – for tests in the major cities. A common refrain at such times was “We need people to get tested” and the term “testing rates” was heard often. Testing was of course free of charge (this is not the case in all countries).

Masks were worn by government demand or request. In Melbourne when the second wave hit masks were mandatory for people going outside their homes. In Sydney in December masks were made mandatory for people entering shops or other enclosed spaces, but were not mandatory for walking in the street (unlike in Melbourne in July). The consensus changed and governments were quick to change too. 

It was a fluid situation but people cooperated. When a person would not wear a mask in a shopping centre for example, police were called in and sometimes an arrest was made. The news media played a part as well in airing press conferences, for which sign-language interpreters were used so that everyone in the community could benefit from the information.

Landlords and employers pitched in as well. Tenants couldn’t be evicted for not paying rent, for a start, so people had a secure home to quarantine in if necessary. Private companies allowed employees to work from home when staying home wasn’t mandatory, and this changed the labour market – probably permanently. Prices of properties in regional areas – outside cities – rose as people relocated to larger homes costing less.

Savings were available from insurance providers and services providers as well. Insurers advertised their new policies in ads on TV, making it easy for people to save money. Electricity and gas providers notified customers in their invoices of ways to reduce the cost of energy. The government allowed people in certain cases to draw down on their retirement savings for the purpose of paying for essentials – previously this had been impossible. 

With all the extra money sloshing around the economy, business was booming for some. I went to an art store and the woman there said that business had been quiet before Covid as people had no money, but that once the payments started people were bringing their pictures in to get framed. 

Other people I spoke with said similar things and the property markets in the major cities turned upward at the end of 2020, reversing declines that had seen the prices of apartments, especially, heading away from the historical trend: downward. The market collapse that people had predicted in the middle of that year did not eventuate.

The theme for retailers advertising on TV was enjoying the small pleasures. David Jones, a major department store, had an ad featuring its city display windows, with the narrative going back in time to show how the simple things always matter. Coles, a supermarket, also emphasised the simple things: with profits surging as people swapped eating out for eating at home, demonstrating how a load of groceries could bring people together. 

When the Australian Open tennis tournament led to players entering hotel quarantine for two weeks of mandatory isolation, news stories of some players’ complaints drew censure. The commentariat was as one with the government: it didn’t matter who you are, the rules are the rules. This position vis-à-vis the virus governed all relations between people, between the people and the authorities, and between people and other organisations, such as employers, schools, and churches. 

And it wasn’t just politicians fronting those press conferences, either. Because chief health officers became familiar faces, there was confidence in the community that the rules were mandated by best practice, and were not just an idea thought up by some bureaucrat. Expert opinion mattered and was visible driving policy. The delay in starting vaccination was noticeable but people understood that in order to get a high vaccination rate everyone had to be confident that the drugs were safe. The government took its time and did the job properly.

The government got points also with regard to its stance in relation to China, leading calls for the World Health Organisation to enquire into the roots of the virus. When this finally got underway in January, the government in Australia had already had to face internal criticism on account of the bans China’s government had placed on imports from Down Under, including lobsters, coal, timber, and copper. 

The cost of principle was high but people understood that it was necessary. Communication led to consensus. One rule to bind them all. The inexorable logic of mortality – everyone wanted to limit the number of deaths – led to an extraordinary national response to the crisis.

Thursday 14 January 2021

Book review: Northmen: The Viking Saga (AD 793-1241), John Haywood (2015)

I bought this book at an independent bookstore during the house move. I don’t remember which one it was, but I tend to gravitate to independents because they have better stock than other types of bookstore. That’s not to disparage chains like Collins – as many of them are franchises, so have their own purchasing policies independent of a central office.

Compared to the other book on Vikings I read recently – Neil Price’s ‘The Children of Ash and Elm’ - Haywood’s book is more restricted, being mainly about the politics of Viking civilisation. It’s a bit of a misnomer to use that label, to be frank, as they didn’t have much of a civilisation to speak of, being largely illiterate. I think it’s fair to say this, especially given the Vikings’ predilection for robbery, extortion, and slavery. 

They weren’t “nice” people and, as Haywood points out near the end of his book, it was Europe that changed the Vikings as much as it was the Vikings changed Europe. In fact, he doesn’t say this. What he says is that Europe changed the Vikings. But the Vikings gave the world their method of government – the “thing”, roughly comparable to a parliament – and that’s quite an achievement for a group of criminals. Sort of like a meth cook winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

If I was going to be asked to choose which of these two books could best be read to provide a solid overview of Viking history, I’d equivocate and say, “Read both.” Price’s book is better in a way because it gives more information about the Vikings’ religion. Haywood’s provides more information however about actual religious practice, as he includes a visitor’s account of an X-rated Viking funeral where Price elided events and glossed over this part of the story – and it’s an important item to be cognizant of if you want to fully understand (as far as that’s possible at this remove) the Viking mind.

Because they were different from us in significant ways. A prehistoric pagan society. It reminds me of the words of the character Kurtz (unforgettably played by Marlon Brando) in ‘Apocalypse Now’. 

This is the flipside to complaints about Christianity. It’s incontrovertible that Christianity helped the West to civilise, and not just in terms of morality. Priests also helped with state-building since, while rulers used to be – in pagan societies – at the head of the religious cult, under the God of Christ a literate, specialised class of individual was charged with administering to the spiritual needs of the community. This literate class of people – priests, bishops, and other office holders – brought a specific set of qualities to bear on the project, which enabled emerging nation states to negotiate the sometimes rocky path to peace.

Old habits died hard, and converting people to the new religion often required more than persuasion using words. Often, not surprisingly for a people so wedded to violence in their politics and economic life, it required more severe methods, such as murder, torture, and dispossession. Though “required” is not quite right, too. In any case, the process took time and was sometimes rocky in its proceeding.

To illustrate how politics and religion combined around 1000 years ago in Scandinavia, a request from the king of the Danes to Rome for a bishop based locally was for many years ignored. Up until one was ordained – as, eventually, he was – the head of the Danish church was based in northern Germany. So you can see how political leaders viewed the church: not just as a source of solace for their people, but also as a part of the cognitive and practical infrastructure used for state building. The Church (and it was, of course, the Catholic Church) was integrated with daily life in a way that, now, seems absurd. 

As we know, this role would not diminish as the centuries rolled by, and it was again the people of the “thing” – northmen and Germans – who would lead the push for revitalisation of the Church that, 500 years later, resulted in the establishment of entirely separate denominations which we now call Protestant.

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Podcast review: The Dropout, American Broadcasting Corporation (2019)

I actually wanted to find podcasts by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and stumbled across this one in the process. This American ABC podcast has top-notch production values and has clearly been edited by people who know exactly what they’re doing. That’s not to say that the Australian ABC doesn’t know what it’s doing, just that the way the show comes across differs radically from what we’ve come to recognise as distinctively Aunty.

I first came across the subject of the podcast – tech startup executive Elizabeth Holmes – when I read a book by an American journalist that centred on her company, Theranos. The ABC’s podcast covers overlapping ground but the boundaries of one product do not exactly match those of the other though John Carreyrou (who wrote the book) was interviewed for the podcast and you hear him speaking in some episodes. The diversity of approaches is good because it allows you to triangulate using referents from both of them, and build a more comprehensive picture of how Holmes, a Millennial, tried and spectacularly failed to copy Steve Jobs (a Boomer).

It’s a good joke if you have time for the endless rivalry between the generations. Many do. Most won’t have heard of ‘The Dropout’ and that’s a shame because it’s beautifully made and – like all commercial enterprises that come from America – very slick. Australian ABC listeners might be dismayed by the fawning tone of the presenter when describing Holmes – who was basically a lying swindler – but they shouldn’t let their scruples bother them. 

This is a class act but don’t worry there is a lot of material here to digest, and each episode takes about 45 minutes to run. It chronicles a world where a device or instrument is called a “platform” and where spin steps in to take the place of science. Where acid dreams of boundless wealth fuel grotesque caricatures of innovation, and where those who aren’t pushed to the brink of self-harm eventually go to the press to relieve themselves of the burden of the lies.

And politics is part of the mix, too, due to the eminent board of directors Theranos fielded, including George Schulz, a former republican grandee. What his grandson did shocked him. It will entertain you for hours. 

A note worth sounding is that the program’s title refers not only to the testing regime Theranos proposed – one pin-prick of blood could be used for multiple pathology tests – but also to the fact that Holmes didn’t graduate from university. 

I told you this program was slick. It’s also more penetrating than Carreyrou’s book, and goes to places that product never did, such as old school friends of Holmes. But this persistence betrays a striking myopia. If they’re so dead-set on uncovering wrongdoing, why are Americans unable to address the real problem at the core of their healthcare system?

Sunday 10 January 2021

Biden and Harris: The first 100 days

People in the US seem to be complacent about the outlook for the first term of Harris and Biden. I'm cautiously optimistic. We see a change in the landscape of a kind rarely witnessed but just because you get an election result it doesn't mean that things will automatically get better. If these two do three things in their first term in office, I'll be both overjoyed and surprised. What I think needs to be done is:

  1. Single-payer healthcare
  2. Raise minimum wage
  3. Change gun laws

It'd be easy to find other items to add to this list, so I'll stop there. Now is not the time for celebration, it's a time for concerted and determined effort to remove the barriers to fairness in the US.

The reason I’m cautiously optimistic instead of enthusiastic is because, currently (as I write this post in my Sydney home), the main concern for progressives seems to be to chastise those who supported Trump. The sphinx pulls off his mask and the cobras take shelter from the sun. But they won’t go away forever, they’ll just be waiting for another opportunity to emerge. 

We need a new political dispensation and it won’t come from politicians – we saw Biden making a nasty comment in public after Trump said he wouldn’t go to the inauguration. The change has to come from voters. 

It’s the only way it will happen. If we rely on an old-style oppositional regime it’s less likely we’ll get a result that will endure and more likely that we’ll get more civil unrest. 

Obama’s tepid healthcare plan didn’t work so it was easy for Trump to pull it apart – less support in the community meant that there wasn’t much of an outcry when he watered down the laws. Putting in place a truly useful plan will bring down condemnation from vested interests and that’s not just the Republican Party; there are other people in the community who will motivate Republican Congressmen and -women to strongly oppose a single-payer scheme. 

Those people have to be convinced or else, as a last result, ignored. What they shouldn’t be is insulted and belittled. On 10 January I saw the following on Facebook – apologies to John Fox and his friends for posting their comments here, but they didn’t seem anything but innocuous – and thought to myself how over the past two days the debate in the Twittersphere had been rancorous and acid.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Really! The reason why I’m so vocal on these issues is because of America’s special place in the world. What happens in America gets talked about in other countries, so it can often form a kind of model for political conduct elsewhere. As long as the unfair practices referred to in the above list exist in the US, they are a threat to people everywhere.

Conflict should always be a last resort, so let’s stop pointing the finger. We don’t need to make enemies. We don’t need to shame and name. By all means impeach Donald Trump, but we also need to do what he said, in his most recent press conference, was important: bring people together. If the most divisive president in living memory can talk like this, it must be possible for Twitter users to figuratively lay down their weapons and try to come together in amity and concord, for the benefit of the world. 

For what the storming of the Capitol showed us more than anything else is that the world is watching. Americans have been chosen to lead so they must truly lead and I think that to do this they must break the cycle of recrimination. Whether people can manage to overcome their craving for revenge remains to be seen but going by Joe Biden’s response to Trump’s announcement that he (Trump) wouldn’t be at the inauguration – Biden said, “He’s an embarrassment” – the signs are not looking good that the people will put down their flaming torches. 

Friday 8 January 2021

Tweeting better stories, episode one: December 2020

There’s been so much negativity on social media that I decided to look for alternatives – to the sledging, the aggro, the bile, the disaffection and endless rancour. It’s gotten so bad that we’ve neglected to remember what Twitter was like seven or eight years ago, at a time when we thought that it would help to change the world for the better. If anything the opposite is true. It’s like we’re only now seeing what we’re like for the first time. 

Twitter is a mirror we hold up to ourselves.

On 6 December at 7.37am I saw the following endearing tweet from someone looking for tips about shows to watch. “Goat division?” I thought to myself wistfully, trying to remember what it was like to watch Miyao Hayazaki films. I bought a whole set of them to watch with my children when they visited me in Queensland. That was in a different life. I’m a lot slimmer than I was then, and healthier (though older).

On 8 December at 8.27am I saw the following tweet about a new children’s toy. Children need to be able to dream – I remember dimly from my own experience (I was a child once) – but so do adults. The enduring relevance of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise reminds us – because we do need reminding, I think – that the things that bind us together are more powerful than the things that pull us apart.

On 10 December at 5.21am I saw this tweet which contained a new word – new for me, at least. “Headcanon” seems like a deliberately useful word, as though someone had said one day, “I need a new word to use in this context,” though I would’ve settled for “personal canon”. Maybe the French have a better term.

I initially saw this ridiculous tweet on 10 December at 6.26am and captured it. 

It makes me think about how, in the early days of social media (say, around 2009) the mainstream media commonly griped about it on account of such vacuous food-related tweets. 

Another commonplace whinge went along the lines of some guy in a dressing gown living in his mother’s basement. You know the routine. 

It turns out that that guy was you and that the food tweets were the best thing about Twitter.

On 14 December at 4.59am, this silly tweet about felines appeared in my feed. Another common bitch about social media in the old days was due to all the cat photos you could find there. We all like to see photos of cats and dogs, right? Well, JP evidently thinks so.

On 15 December at 3.52am, this tweet from a mainstream media outfit promoting a story on its website. In the story new graduates of Minnesota State University are sent a collection of special items on account of their graduation, including confetti. Perfect material for Tik Tok, I would’ve thought.

On 17 December at 3.23pm, I saw this Japanese tweet about a new drama in that country.

I asked someone I know in Japan what it said and she replied:
It is just an ad of drama series called Ossan’s Love.
You can watch them on Netflix from the first of Jan.
So, “sugar daddy.”
The drama called Ossan’s Love is that one senior guy who is about fifty years old falls in love with a fresh man at a company....
I particularly liked the drawing that came with the promo. It looks like a happy cat (can’t seem to get away from cats, already!).

On 31 December at 7.53pm, this tweet about a new Indian crime show on Netflix appeared in my feed. In fact, it was accompanied by the Netflix hashtag, and it caught my attention because of the generous spirit in which it was launched into the ether. 

Now the following is something that varies radically from my thesis. On 30 December at 6.48pm appeared this angry tweet from @theexwhogothot, who praised an Indian OTT service and objected to PC content on Netflix. Lighten up, buddy! Maybe you need some more stuffed Oreos to sweeten you up.

I thought it was symptomatic of the phenomenon I outlined earlier in this post that on the day I published it Donald Trump – the Orange Liability, as I always label him – was banned from at least one social media site indefinitely on account of the Washington, DC riots that engulfed the Capitol. Perhaps – I thought to myself, optimistically – we’ve gotten sick and tired of all the drama that’s daily confected by millions of ordinary people who are using these technologies for selfish purposes. Perhaps the tide has turned.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Movie review: Extinction, dir Ben Young (2018)

This film reminded me of a blogpost I made in 2018 – ‘We need a bill of rights for robots’ – that garnered an average number of views. The film is equally unremarkable for about half of its length until the narrative takes a turn and robots come to the fore. 

I could include spoilers but I won’t.

The other films that come to mind of course are Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ which came out in 2015 and also deals with robots and, as well, his ‘Annihilation’ (2018), which doesn’t. It’s safe to predict that in future there’ll be more films about robots as cars, fridges, home entertainment devices, phones, and computers become equipped with heuristic software and other types of exotic products (we refer to them nowadays as “AI”) and the issue of how to deal with robots becomes pressing. It’s already influencing our lives, though we may not be aware of it.

Young’s film makes a ‘Terminator’-like riff on the robot-as-enemy trope, indulging in a lot of standard action-movie special effects – there are plenty of guns, there’re explosions, there’re hovering spaceships – but the crux of the film is this heuristic function – the ability of some robots to learn. The film does a sort of sleight-of-hand, making us think of the main characters in a certain way then – wrenching plot device – asking us to reassess everything we’ve seen and heard to that point, and to relocate our understanding under a broader ethical umbrella.

So, this is a welcome addition to the sci-fi canon, though if this movie becomes famous (which I somehow doubt – it’s too low-key and intelligent, offering a gentle reminder instead of a sharp rebuke) it’ll be delayed until the director makes another, more successful film. I saw ‘Extinction’ on Netflix after a friend found it in the library. It wasn’t me looking for sci-fi, it was a person for whom science fiction is something of a habit.

Tuesday 5 January 2021

Book review: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee (2013)

I bought second-hand, in November, this interesting account of a late bloomer who’s been abandoned by convention these days but who, in her hey-day – the 1990s – was widely read.

Like a lot of biographies, Lee’s book is possibly more interesting on account of what it says about the country of residence of its subject than on account of the subject herself. Fitzgerald is not an author who has ever been on my radar and a lot of what serves as material for Lee’s study is highly insular – you get the usual list of names of notable people (eg Lytton Strachey), of places (eg Bloomsbury) – but the portrait it gives of England at war is gripping. 

The book might not suit everyone. For those who prefer reading with the grain of history, Lee provides timely input regarding the status of women a century ago. Such things require statement again and again as, for each generation, the same lessons need to be learned anew in order to overcome the biological imperative as much as cultural inertia. 

Just when you think that this biography will be run-of-the-mill things turn south as a result of Penelope’s husband Desmond’s war experiences. In the years immediately after that conflict, Desmond was drinking heavily and regularly and money was tight, so tight in fact that the family – Penelope, Desmond and two of their children (one was at boarding school) – had to move suddenly to London to live on a canal barge. 

This wouldn’t be the final humiliation but to compensate for Fitzgerald’s trials Lee takes sides, finding reason to applaud her subject’s determination and grit, or her perspicacity when, working as a teacher, Fitzgerald found things to celebrate in the authors whose works had been set for her students. This time was, in Lee’s estimation, a kind of training ground for Fitzgerald’s later role as novelist, and so Lee is able to reprise an earlier theme – of economy – in the telling.

As a writer, Fitzgerald seems to have done best when drawing on her own experiences or when choosing biography as a medium for her expression. It’s premature to say more than this because I’ve never read any of her books but from what Lee writes about the Italian book – titled ‘Innocence’ – a complete absence of any reference to the mafia makes it an unlikely place for anyone to go to seek the truth about that country. It seems as though Fitzgerald simply drew on commonplaces in an effort to furnish her narrative with plot devices. I was reminded of these parts of Lee’s book when, at around 5.40pm on the last day of 2020, I saw a photo posted on Twitter (see below).

Novelists have always gone elsewhere to find inspiration for their plots, just look at the way the Gothic novelists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries plundered Italy and Germany for ideas in order to create settings and characters for their immensely popular novels. And today historical novelists do the same. Fitzgerald set some of her books overseas – in Italy and Russia and Germany.

Others were set in England at an earlier epoch than hers: she seems to’ve been particularly interested in the period just prior to WWI – what was known at the time as the Great War for Civilisation – because of a sense of optimism that then was rife in Europe. Finding a relief from the pressing disappointments of the present – she wasn’t happy with her financial situation nor with her son’s marriage, and her husband was a drunkard – Fitzgerald was able to fashion short novels that drew critical praise. 

Her books were popular as literature, so in a limited sense she was read in the Anglosphere but since her death in 2000 her fame hasn’t risen and, in fact, I’d never heard of her when I saw this book sitting on a shelf in a second-hand bookshop in regional NSW.  The book can be read not only for information about WWII and the generation that spawned the counterculture but also for background on publishing in the UK in the 1980s and 90s. This was in itself an interesting time due to the rise of democracy globally as well as the reactionary backlash of neoliberalism. History buffs can draw a good deal of sustenance from this book.

Another theme that emerged while reading was that of old age, and especially what it can do for an artist. This is particularly the case with regard to Fitzgerald as she didn’t start publishing until her 60s but I think also of the late paintings of the Boyds – explosions of colour that take your breath away with their intensity. In Fitzgerald’s case there is an awareness of the things that cannot be said in any way other than through art. I touched on this theme in a review of a book last year, a book by New Zealand author Janet Frame. Fitzgerald’s enigmas in her final published works – a novel and a book of short stories – stand out in relief against a background familiar to my generation because it was lived. 

This was an era when Rushdie and Naipaul were household names. I’m drawn to lost causes as much as Fitzgerald was, to those things that evade capture by convention and that are able to express things that commonplace objects and narrative cannot. In this sense it was a fatal attraction that drew my eyes to Lee’s book and that allowed me to commit a number of days’ leisure time to reading it.

Monday 4 January 2021

Grocery shopping list for December 2020

This post is the twenty-fourth in a series and the third to chronicle diets. In the middle of the month I moved out of my temporary digs in Glebe to stay first (for a week or so) at a Mascot hotel, and then – from the 22nd – in Wollongong at some friends’ house.

1 December

In November I went from 113.3kg to 108.2kg – a 5kg loss – with the trend continuing this month. 

A suggestion made last month to Dr Nanda, my GP, that I’d be at 100kg by the end of the year looked, however, less likely to end up being true. Going by the trend, I thought that by then I’d probably be at around 105kg.

This would also be off the mark but notice in the above chart the curve becoming smooth as I get used to a regular routine. Spikes got smaller but, as we’ll see, they didn’t long stay flat. 

Unquestionably, I understand why some people who try to diet might be disappointed. Progress is, for a start, hard to gauge without a set of scales (which I’m using every morning, when I just get up) but if you persist small things anyway can be noticeable – even without a morning reading each day – such as clothes. In my case, the red-and-black-check shirt worn on this day, which I had had trouble wearing in October because then too tight. I also now easily fit into my size 40 pants. Instead of my belt, when fastened, impaling the second notch in the strap, it now sat in the fifth notch. And I could touch my feet without effort; even putting on socks in the morning was simpler.

Went to Coles in the morning and bought (see receipt below) a blue grenadier fillet, some smoked cod fillets, lamb chops, baby spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, apples, blueberries, and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

3 December

Went to Coles and bought (see receipt below) yoghurt, an avocado, low-carb snacks, milk, and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

6 December

Morning weigh-in saw me at 107.3kg. Later, went to Coles and bought (see receipt below) sliced ham, Greek yoghurt, portobello mushrooms, strawberries, blueberries, baby spinach, barramundi, a piece of ling, low-carb snacks, and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

The calorie count for the first week of December was, as follows:

The activity chart for the same period of time:

And, lastly, the macronutrient chart:

I ate an average of about 51g of carbs per day that week. 

7 December

Morning weigh-in had me at 107.4kg. Later, went to Coles and bought flavoured sugarless mineral water.

11 December

Morning weigh-in had me at 106.9kg. Later, went to Coles in Broadway Shopping Centre and bought sugarless flavoured mineral water, apples, and baby spinach. With some errands to do in Pyrmont I went to Coles there, too, and bought garbage bags and low-carb bread. Receipts below.

Late in the afternoon a bank email arrived and said:

It was hardly surprising to receive this message from a CEO. Other organisations had been advertising similar messages on TV – Coles had an ad highlighting the importance of simple things, such as a meal shared with family, David Jones had an ad featuring shop display windows (difficult to access for some due to lockdowns) – as I’d earlier in the day discussed Covid-19 over Facebook Messenger’s video function with a Polish friend. Instead of us pursuing meaning, I’d told her, meaning had come to pursue us, showing us what’s really important in life. 

A silver lining of sorts. 

I look back over my year of shopping lists and consider how, in March and April, stores had been responding to the crisis by, for example, telling customers that locals only would be served. At that time – readers of this sequence of posts might remember – my local supermarket set up plastic barriers at the entrance in order to make people enter by a different door from people leaving the store. Now, the government’s efficient response to the disease – the use of cash payments, wage subsidies, and rigorous contact tracing (with the use of QR codes at cafes, restaurants, and clubs), among other practices – had (temporarily, it turned out) put a lid on infections where other countries were still in crisis. In Japan, some tests have to be paid for by the resident (up to A$160) and in Poland people were declining to have a test as to do so’d mean staying home, some considering such a measure onerous due to the loss of income in which it would result.

Companies in Australia took a leaf out of the government’s book, exercising themselves with the aim of making sure the community remained viable, people remained fed and housed, and those in need were assisted with whatever measures they had at their disposal. On the nightly news was a heart-warming spectacle.

14 December

Morning weigh-in showed a figure of 106.3kg. Here is the previous week’s calorie chart:

Here’s the activity chart for the week just finished:

And here’re the macronutrient totals:

I ate an average of about 47g of carbs per day that week.

15 December

Morning weigh-in gave a reading of 106.2kg. Later, went to the IGA in Mascot and bought milk, Greek yoghurt, toothpaste, and taramosalata.

17 December

Went to Coles and bought (see receipt below) low-carb snacks, yoghurt, raspberries, and blueberries.

18 December

Morning weigh-in had me at 105.7kg, and later went to Bunnings and bought a sink drainer. After going to the new place at Botany I walked to the IGA and bought garbage bags and tissues.

19 December

Went to Auburn with friends and at the Gima Supermarket bought kalamata olives and walnuts. On the way back to the hotel, at a service station I bought milk.

21 December

Morning weigh-in gave a reading of 105.4kg and the previous week’s calorie intake was:

The activity chart:

And the macronutrient totals:

That week I ate an average of 59g of carbs per day (see that spike on Saturday? – it was mostly due to eating a single piece of baklava!), the progress chart at this point in time going like this:

Later I went to Coles and bought low-carb bread and low-carb snacks.

24 December

Morning weigh-in gave a reading of 104.3kg. Later, went to Woolworths in Wollongong and bought (see receipt below) marinaded goat’s cheese, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, an orange candy melon, half a honeydew melon, a mango, nectarines, lentil soup, doughnuts, and mouthwash.

27 December

Morning weigh-in gave a reading of 104kg. Later, on the way back from Sydney in the car with my friends, I stopped at a service station and bought (see receipt below) low-carb snacks.

28 December

Morning weigh-in gave a reading of 103.7kg and the previous week’s calorie count was, as shown below.

The activity chart was, as shown below.

And the macronutrient totals were, for the week:

In the week just past I ate an average of 48g of carbs each day.

29 December

Morning weigh-in had me at 103.3kg. Later went to Ariel Café in North Wollongong and bought some ground Campos coffee in kilo bags.

30 December

Morning weigh-in had me at 103.2kg. Later, drove to the Leisure Coast Fruit Market and, with friends, bought (see receipt below) milk, prawns, provolone, green and red chillies, “Manner” brand wafers, shiitake mushrooms, green capsicum, tomatoes, nectarines, lychees, eggplant, a sweet potato, onions, ginger, garlic, oyster mushrooms, button mushrooms, a daikon radish, zucchini, an avocado, plums, eggs, sirloin steak, mangoes, broccoli, and apples.

Later, we went to the same place and bought (see receipt below) a range of biscuits and honey and ice-cream, plus soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking wine, coriander, zucchini flowers, pickled ginger, cooked red peppers, Havarti cheese, blue brie, and corn chips.

Sunday 3 January 2021

A year in review, part six: Creativity

At the beginning of May a friend of mine who lives in Poland commented on a post I put up on Facebook on 13 May. My post went:

When my father started writing about his life – his memoir would run to about 170 A4 pages – it was with his own father that the narrative opens. A man who would talk about "fate". And dad would sadly remonstrate with Joao Luis, in his text, as though to be liable to blame fate for the deficiencies in your life was, somehow, a sign of moral weakness.

I still remember a day when, aged about 17 – I was in the final year of secondary school – I phoned dad from the kitchen in our house by the harbour and asked him if I could drop French. On the timetable, French clashed with art, and I was good at drawing. In fact, I would draw obsessively and my best friend at school was also interested in art.

Dad said "No." But not in an aggressive way. It was by remaining calm that he launched his strongest barbs. When I told my art teacher, the man said, "You're crazy." But the die was cast and I would go to university and study languages, receiving a 2-2 for my final year thesis. Then to work in various offices doing a range of things that I hated.

Now, at a time when I am almost retired, people keep telling me to draw but I am filled with sadness at the idea. So many years of lost time. So many failures. So much suffering. My fate ...

My incessant writing (you can’t say “scribbling” anymore because it’s all done on a keyboard, so perhaps we should say “my incessant tapping” or “pecking” – like a chicken!) in the form of reviews of books, movies, and TV shows was augmented by the commencement of a collection of sonnets (‘The Words to Say’) that I started assembling from pieces written over the previous decade and, now, added to with new items so that by the middle of November the collection had reached a total of over 50 individual sonnets, and by the end of December there were 90. This was in addition to another collection – ‘Beaconsfield’, on the subject of the house move – I started in June, which had over 10 individual items. 

More sequences would follow, including one titled ‘Salve’ that by the end of December had 60 pieces in it and that was a miscellany collecting a range of sonnets on different subjects written in the years since 2007, when I’d started writing this kind of thing. The tree, once the weather warmed, would throw out a cacophony of blossoms. All this pecking prompted me to consider how, as a child, I would spend hours alone in my room drawing with a pencil on paper. I was good at it and it’s what gave me satisfaction. By taking this means of expression away from me my father had condemned me to drudgery and, in the end, I ended up sick in hospital. Basia wasn’t the only person to tell me to start drawing again, and while all these people could encourage me to do so, I was inhibited both by a residue of bad blood and by a lack of a suitable environment to work in. 

At least by writing I was doing something that had happened as a result of a change of direction that dad had sponsored by making me graduate. I was still his captive, though he’d died almost a decade earlier. For her part, my daughter by this time was earning a living making drawings that were sold on the website of Getty Images, a global corporation. They had even written an article featuring Adelaide, and published it online for customers to read if they wanted. She was continuing a tradition. My mother had worked as a commercial artist before her husband got her to change course – she opened up a gift shop with her mother-in-law, in Brighton, and it reopened in different quarters after the family relocated in Sydney in the year I was born – and her aunt had made photographs throughout her life after having been introduced to the mysteries of the art by an American Army photographer in the aftermath of WWII.


On 24 May I did a drawing (see photo below) in company with friends who’d come for lunch (with whom I’d board in December and January). We’d started out with a game where we followed the mark-making of one of our number, and then had to put a name to a face. But then my other friend put some objects on the table and suggested we draw what we saw. The first objects were a pair of shells, the castoffs from a meal made on a previous occasion – abalone from the Fish Market – , a pink rock I had saved from the balcony off the library when I found them while tidying that room the previous November (see last year’s post), and a jug I had bought at the shop set up at the end of an exhibition of Islamic art held 12 years earlier at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It is not by any means a brilliant drawing but it should be kept firmly in mind that it took no more than three minutes to make. I had made approximately one drawing since 2012. 

The old skills never went away but they are a rusty and ask to be used. This was evident to me because of two other drawings made that day, one of which featured two biscuit packets – a Jatz box and the wrapping used to package Tim Tams. 

The latter was poorly executed but, in the event, I enjoyed myself. 

At about the same time I started reading Proust again – I had begun with the first book in the series in 2014 – and felt stirring inside me a kind of mania developing for his century-old work of art. The two things were linked inasmuch as my father had discouraged me from pursuing art in a way that had not been true in Proust’s case with regard to literature. While he had always been able to write I returned to drawing very late in life. On page 210 of ‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’ I came across this:
… I regretted the fact that I had turned down the diplomatic career and tied myself to a life without travel, so as not to absent myself from a girl whom I would not now be seeing again, whom I had already more or less forgotten. We design our life for the sake of an individual who, by the time we are able to welcome her into it, had turned into a total stranger, and never comes to share that life with us; and so we live on imprisoned in an arrangement made for someone else.
(I also tried diplomacy, but unlike in the case of Proust’s narrator, I was turned down at the first interview; they immediately and accurately discerned my unsuitability for such a career.) 

When I rang dad to ask for advice about what path to choose, I used the phone in the upstairs kitchen at home. It was after school and, as usual, I’d come home promptly but, different on this day, was the fact that I had to make a decision. I was faced with a problem that had arisen as a result of the timetable clash at school. Scheduling art and French to take place in different classrooms at the same time on the same day would, for most students, not pose a problem as in either case this form of study would be a mere diversion relative to the main task of learning something practical such as economics (which I did not take) or mathematics (which I did). Possibly only I was forced to choose between the two, though I loved both. I was good at languages because I have perfect pitch, and was able, when young, to mimic any phrase I heard in class (or anywhere else, for that matter; I also did impersonations). 

Along with sailing, drawing was a passion. When he answered the phone – I had gone through his secretary to get to him in his Waterloo office – and I put the question to him (could I give up French) dad said “No” firmly but quietly; he hardly ever raised his voice in the normal course of events and growing up I saw him lose his temper rarely. But my fate was sealed. I got 137 out of 150 for French in the Higher School Certificate – the exam that in New South Wales allows you to matriculate to a tertiary education institution – and immediately enrolled in an arts degree at Sydney University. After graduating I would be employed in a series of roles I was manifestly unsuited for until I landed in a PR role and started to learn to write.

In 2020, the problem remains, if the prison’s exit is to be used: what to make and how? The matter of which medium to use is a question, first of all, to answer. Should I continue to use A4 office paper and a plain HB pencil or branch out and paint with colours – a question of the same nature as that which confronted me when I thought about watching television. (I had during this year decided on a whim to watch commercial TV and to subscribe to two over-the-top services, instead of just watching the ABC News channel.) If I used colour, would I plump for water colours? Gouache? Watercolour pencils, perhaps? Or crayons or pastels? If you look at colour then you might want to consider using oil paint or acrylic – at this point, things get messy and complicated and you don’t want to let a barrier get in the way of realising your dream. But even if you fix on a suitable way to make images, there’s the matter of what to render. 

I have, still, on a shelf in my library, some old sketch books dating from the 1980s that contain drawings I made after finishing secondary school but many of the paintings I did in those days have been lost – for my fine arts course at uni I took a practical unit of study, that involved making artworks; this was at the Tin Sheds on City Road – a fact I regret deeply but for which I can find no remedy other than to make more, but what to draw? 

How to cope with the feelings of dismay – anger, even – that arise as a result of putting pencil to paper? How do you quantify loss? How to describe it? What does loss look like to you? Is it different from what it looks like to me? Or to any other person you might pass walking down the street? How could my personal sense of loss be made to appear universal? And what to do with all the negative emotions? How to describe adequately – so that a third person might understand – the damage my father did? Any my mother …? My mother had gone to art school and had worked as a graphic designer before marriage and had never had time to pursue her art practice.

Is there any point in trying to communicate such a deep sense of regret to anyone apart from those – friends and, especially, family – who knew my father, and who know me? Even communicating them to such people is risky because you might, in time, and given enough iterations of the same refrain, be viewed as a crank. And then, merely making the attempt is perilous, as in the story of Pandora.

Even picking up a pencil threatens to retraumatise when the scar sits close to the surface. What was mine was stolen from me and to get it back I have to relive, every time, a (profound, dreadful) pain caused by the theft of time. It appears when I talk with my daughter about her ideas for artwork she makes for commercial purposes: if I can advise her regarding the ideas she has for drawings, why couldn’t my mother and father have done the same thing, when I was young, for me? And a person who’d overseen those events – rooted in the past but prominent, also, in the present in the form of feelings and memories – sat in front of me on 25 April 2016 as I recorded a conversation with mum for posterity. I hadn’t judged her when she was alive but I would be judged for putting her in a nursing home, where she died later that year. 

A burden would be mine not once but twice though my great-aunt Trish, who reminded me, when I called her in relation to Aunty Christine’s funeral (which was recorded for viewing online by family), how mum, also, had been prevented – by the demands of marriage and children – from practicing her art. Dad built a workroom for mum (next to the kitchen upstairs at 158 Hopetoun Avenue, on the slab he had put up over the carport) but she didn’t use it much. It was full – as had been the old kitchen near the front of the house – but the contents of her workroom were disorderly and showed signs of preoccupation with other things. Things such as supporting a family and raising children. As I do now, mum needed to have time free so that she could be at leisure to do art. 

The luxury of having nothing else to do is very Woolfian. From 1992 when mum and dad were travelling, following his retirement, dad would manage the finances and work on his memoir while mum would look after other practical aspects of the household: cooking, cleaning, and shopping and miscellaneous errands. 

I bought two notebooks in June, one early in the month from Woolworths through their online interface, and three from Dymocks in the CBD. The first is a very large one – A4 in dimension and with 120 pages – and the other three are in a plastic pack and are A5 (13cm wide by 21cm high). Earlier in the year I’d bought at Officeworks in Glebe some blocks of paper: two Derwent watercolour pads (one A4 and one A3) and two Spirax sketch pads (one A4 and one A3).


I communicated with Trish again, this time by email, at the end of May, when I was in the process of going through great-aunt Madge Johansen’s photos. In a folder I made sit 586 images she made during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. To arrive at this number, I separated a selection of the best from the totality of files in folders the studio had made – and given to me on a USB – earlier in the year. I’d asked them to digitise a box of slides I’d inherited from my uncle. 

This sounds complex but in the event it was a kind of revelation, so some detail is warranted. Around the same time an aunt of mine died and, furthermore, it was getting near the time when, four years earlier, mum passed away. In my mind the two events were linked. The death of my aunt mingled with the feelings I got from looking at Madge’s images, many of which feature boats, including the cruise ships Aurelia and Wanganella. The following photo was taken by her husband Elmer in front of the Aurelia. Other photos show Elmer skippering his tug, fishing in a stream, or standing on a rock with his catch. A boat is a fitting symbol of this period in my life, as it reminds me of how, when my uncle was in a nursing home and living with dementia, he would think he was on a ship. When I visited he spoke to me of his obsession, and he wandered around the secure quarters of the institution looking for an exit. 

Dad also, when he was in a nursing home and living with dementia, searched for a way to escape. I offer recourse, in this way, to memory as, like the ones shown here, many of Madge’s images are washed out, the colours, because of the quality of the film stock used, changing over time in the emulsion. They have become dreamy; advertising executives know that if you remove most of the colours from your imagery you will produce a different effect in the viewer’s mind, than if the colours in the shots are highly saturated and diverse. The image below is like this and shows Madge on the Wanganella, onboard which she travelled to Sydney in the 60s. 

On the same trip the couple made their way to Canberra and here the photos have a range of subjects. In 1972 she took a photo of Elmer inside a New Zealand redwood grove, the trees planted from seeds brought from California. He stands near the centre of the frame, but just to the left of dead centre, looking toward Madge, who is standing there with her camera, composing her shot. Around him the trees form a kind of natural cathedral as glimmers of light play on the ground. In the background the sky is just visible, through the branches and the leaves, as patches of white or silver.

It’s important to note how critical for my reaction was the number of photographs Madge kept. The sheer breadth of subjects she chose, and the uniform quality across the range, combined to give me an indication of the size of the talent and skill that lay behind it. 

I don’t know how many negatives Madge made as only the slides survive, but I guess there must’ve been thousands ignored because not up to scratch. Many slides show landscapes or hillsides. Madge liked to compose elaborate images having the kind of glamour usually found in professional photographs but always something is happening away from the main focus of attention. It might be the sky, clouds, a tree, a patch of scrub, or a beam of sunlight shining on water. Striking things drew her eyes and engaged her and she had a particular interest in dams and waterfalls. Trish says she loved islands – she met Elmer on a Pacific island. She used humour in some photos – especially those with people in them – and cars and buildings also furnished her with material. 

Related to their strength, what is most striking in her images is their organisational clarity. You can see this especially when she turns her gaze toward water or the sky. In all parts of the image something important is happening; there are no “dead” zones.

To illustrate her perfectionism, there are two shots showing Auckland Harbour that were taken from a building, in one of which a balustrade is visible at the bottom of the frame. In the very next image the white diagonal of the balustrade is gone – eliminated by lifting the point of focus just a touch upward – measurably improving the image. You can see how intent Madge was on the composition also because in some photos the horizon is not exactly level, the edges of the frame not quite at 90 degrees to it. The reason for this fault is because Madge was so intent on capturing what she had imagined as she stood there in front of a city, a building, or a valley, that she lost control of one variable – the horizon – in the process of making the image. 

Some are marred due to damage sustained as a result of the passage of time, and other images are from slides that smoke from Elmer’s pipe tobacco has stained. As the excellence of Madge’s production demands some form of homage, I took the folder full of images to be assessed as to the possibility of restoration but spider mould and nicotine have penetrated the emulsion and nothing can be done about the discoloured skies and unfortunate yellow tinge in many of them. It might be possible to digitally enhance some images by increasing the saturation, but this would be expensive if done professionally. 

What is refreshing about the compositions is their immediacy, as well as their perfection. For example, in a shot taken in a Danish street in the 1960s (see image below), Madge was able to use lines she saw – the snaking kerb, the roofs of traditional houses, the diagonals of a modern building’s roof, the branches of a tree, the detail on a car’s chassis, the markings on street signs that had been installed to control traffic – creating a whole of stunning complexity and beauty. Light and shadow mix, and the moment is privileged – in the shoulder of a pedestrian clad in his coat and a plastic bag scudding across the carriageway borne on the wind – while old and new mingle and hedge. Harmony lies in the play of diagonals, horizontals and verticals – as well as the focal point and foreground and background – and despite the large number of featured variables. 

The photographer was very much in the moment at that instant in time, on that particular sunny day, in that specific town in Denmark. But the fact that Madge never telegraphed the existence of her hobby or its products – Trish told me in an email that she never knew her aunt was inclined to make photographs and, presumably, ignorance was also why my mother never alerted me to the fact – meant that the box of slides that eventually found their way to my library was, like the plastic bag in the photo above (drifting lazily on currents of air), entirely dependent upon chance. 

In another way it was fated. Not only do Madge and I have almost the same birthday (one day apart, though clearly in different years and, in case you’re wondering, we’re both Leos) but we share ancestors, and therefore genes. I was always going to discover her secret though digitising the boxful of slides I inherited was the catalyst – delayed, as it turns out – for the reaction that would take place once I started going through the slides and typing placenames and dates into folder and file names. 


Toward the end of November I began to revise my ideas around making art. With the new house I’d have more room to work with and, in addition to my desk for writing I would have room to paint or draw (or both). Now, my ideas turned to a composite model, and I imagined making linocuts featuring my poetry. I saw in my minds eye a large capital letter – in this case “H” – and the first line of one of the early poems (written in December 2007): “How many years have passed in your absence …” with the first word taking up the first line, the next three words taking up the second line, and the letters getting smaller until, at last, they achieve a uniform size and the rest of the poem could be incorporated into the print’s design. Black ink on white paper, with the figure of a flower or a portrait at the bottom and lines radiating out from the text to the border, also black, around the whole thing. 

I thought about the size of linoleum I’d need to fit a whole sonnet in the design; perhaps something about 20cm square would do, or else (revising my estimate), perhaps about 40cm square. Or else, I went on to imagine, I could use a rectangular piece of lino. 

I thought about other possibilities, such as incorporating elements drawn from social media into the designs. Perhaps a print could have a flower set alongside part of a tweet – you wouldn’t fit a whole tweet into an area 20cm square – or else (I thought) I could use the Instagram logo alongside an element drawn from Chinese culture, such as a celebratory object, something that is brought out or bought at a specific time of the year in order to register the importance of a date.

I thought about lots of things as I was preparing for the move, on the days it was carried out, and on the days following, days on which I was just tidying up the house with its countless boxes (this is an exaggeration, but for sure I had no idea, on 11 December, how many boxes the removalists had brought inside from the trucks).

And I kept on thinking, it became a mental tick, like a recurring nightmare or a thought associated with a traumatic event, one which inspires ideas of its own but, instead of fear, what I felt on such occasions was hope – I was filled with something like a feeling of joy as I contemplated my future surrounded by the tools needed to make art. I would have a special room on the top floor of the house set aside for this purpose, a room of my own. 

The benefit of linocuts being that they don’t make much mess in the performance. I could use a desk that would fit in the studio/study at the top of the house, and have a printing facility at the same table or else on a different table nearby. 

Still, a rug would be needed to protect the floorboard from spills and drips, I mused conscientiously, as, typically for me, I tried to anticipate every eventuality. This is something about me that causes me inconvenience as sometimes I am afraid of starting something new out of fear that I won’t be able to control the process, that things will get away from me, grow a life of their own, become unruly and upset my equilibrium. At least with writing all I need is a desk, some software, and an internet connection. I can sit in my room contentedly for hours, putting down in MS-Word strings of abstract characters.

Making meaning, making the world, making myself living in it. Or thinking between paragraphs about a linocut I could make. For example a portrait of the NSW premier talking on the nightly news, or else a cricket player interviewed in front of a drop showing sponsors’ names and logos. The thick penumbra of messages that surrounds us all the time acting like a second brain, a mediated addition to the memories and experiences we each of us individually possesses, and that drive our behaviour – or is it just that we react to external stimuli, for example an ad for a new product sold at popular fast-food restaurants, or else a car that a woman drives while taking pleasure in her husband’s discomfort while they negotiate a country road in their white metal cocoon. 

Such thoughts passed through my mind as I wrote about a trip to Wollongong at the end of the year, just three days before Christmas, a trip marked by extremes of dark and light, me there being passed by other drivers in their cars going at full speed between the broken white lines painted onto the black or grey surface of the motorway, surrounded by foliage growing on tree branches that come right up to the edge of the carriageway. Like arms.